Indigenous military members endure ‘systemic’ racism, report claims
Indigenous members of the Canadian military face “systemic racism,” according to a draft report obtained by CBC News that calls for an external review.
“We strongly believe there is a systemic issue within the Department of National Defence (DND) and Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) that is rampant throughout all ranks and elements of Land, Air Force and Navy and this issue is serious enough that an external review is imminent,” reads the document prepared by the Defence Aboriginal Advisory Group and handed to the former commander of the Canadian Army, Lt.-Gen. Marquis Hainse, in the spring.
Of the 230 Indigenous military members canvassed by the advisory group, only 16 responded, reporting 40 incidents.
Despite the low response rate, the group said the problem is widespread and many incidents go unreported over fear of reprisal.
The advisory group is calling for an independent investigation similar to the one retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps conducted on allegations of sexual misconduct in the military.
Deschamps released a scathing report in April 2015 that found sexual misconduct to be “endemic” across the Forces. The military has since launched Operation Honour to eliminate inappropriate behaviour in the military.
“There have been examples of abuse of authority,” according to the Aboriginal advisory group’s latest report.
“This is not the military our Aboriginal members signed up for and this is not the military they dedicated their lives to. Victims are being forced out of the military, yet the aggressors continue on — some excelling at their careers.”
‘This is not the military our Aboriginal members signed up for and this is not the military they dedicated their lives to.’ – excerpt from draft report by Defence Aboriginal Advisory Group
Hainse was briefed on the draft report, and on May 10 members of the advisory group met with the former commander to talk about issues raised in the document, the Canadian Armed Forces confirmed.
“The CAF does not tolerate discrimination and any instance of discrimination is one too many,” wrote a Forces spokesperson in a statement to CBC News.
Military ombudsman offers help
“Any case of [discrimination] is extremely serious,” said military ombudsman Gary Walbourne.
“If this is actually as rampant as that report would lead you to believe, it needs to be stomped out of the organization.”
Walbourne said his office stands ready to help Indigenous military members and could launch its own investigation if any of them file an official complaint.
News of the draft report comes at a time when the military is actively trying to recruit and retain Indigenous members. These allegations of racism won’t help, Walbourne noted.
Report contains ‘disturbing’ allegations
The draft report includes anecdotes and allegations branded “rather disturbing and undoubtedly inexcusable” by its author.
In one case, a man alleged he missed his son’s birth when the military denied his request to attend a sacred naming ceremony.
“I was told by the course director that my religion is not recognized by the military,” he wrote. “I was furious. I missed the birth of my only son.”
‘I had several guys call me a dirty wagon burner and a squaw, another called me Tonto. I told staff and nothing was done.’ – Military member quoted in draft report
Others reported encountering the worst racism they’d ever faced, and described being regularly singled out, harassed and called derogatory names.
“I was on a military … course and I had several guys call me a dirty wagon burner and a squaw, another called me Tonto. I told staff and nothing was done,” one Indigenous member told the advisory group.
Abuse came from ‘higher-ups’
A former Inuk soldier told CBC News about the racial abuse she endured before leaving the military in 2015. Esther Wolki said she was treated like “trash” by her superiors during her career at CFB Shilo in Manitoba.
“Words like redskin, or brownie or savage,” said Wolki by phone from Paulatuk, N.W.T. “I was mostly stunned because it was higher-ups that were saying stuff like that.”
When Wolki reported the harassment she was told to toughen up. The military did investigate her allegations of racism, harassment and a sexual assault, but she said nothing was ever done about it.
“It did almost cause a successful suicide,” said Wolki. “It felt really bad. I felt because it’s been said to me so many times, I actually believed it, that I’m a worthless, horrible person and that I don’t deserve to be in the military.”
Since leaving the military her life has “gone downhill,” Wolki said.
‘I get angry, that I have a member of the Canadian Armed Forces who has signed a contract to lay his life on the line on our behalf and to experience this type of behaviour.’ – Military ombudsman Gary Walbourne
“I don’t see a reason to get out of bed. It’s been really bad,” said Wolki, who claimed she’s not getting the help she needs for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder from Veterans Affairs.
The military ombudsman said he has investigated three cases of discrimination against Indigenous members over the last year. In two of the cases, the military acted swiftly and corrected the problem, he said. The third investigation is continuing.
“I get angry, that I have a member of the Canadian Armed Forces who has signed a contract to lay his life on the line on our behalf and to experience this type of behaviour,” Walbourne said.
He said he hopes members of the Aboriginal advisory group or the Indigenous community will come forward to his office with these new findings and evidence to support it.
CBC requested an interview with the Canadian Armed Forces, but no one was made available to discuss the draft report.
The advisory group’s civilian co-chair who authored the report said she’s unable to speak to the media.